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The Toronto Symphony has managed to create an enormous impact in its first two weeks of the new season. Last week it rolled out the star power of soprano Renée Fleming and violinist Henning Kraggerud as well as the tuneful and familiar music of such composers as Rachmaninoff, Puccini, Rossini and Rogers & Hammerstein. This week, the orchestra itself is the centrepiece. By taking on a monstrous symphonic masterpiece last night, it showed itself to be a great symphony orchestra with virtuosic performers throughout every section. It found the heights and depths of musical emotion in this mammoth undertaking.
Mahler’s Symphony No.3 is arguably the largest and longest symphony in the orchestral repertoire with over one hundred instrumentalists, a mezzo-soprano soloist, a women’s choir, a children’s choir and a duration of over ninety minutes not including the intermission. Last night, the expanded orchestra including eight horns, multiple percussion players, extra performers in every section, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, eighty voices of the Amadeus Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers, and Oriana Singers and another fifty voices of The Toronto Children’s Choir made a total of well over two hundred performers creating sounds of glorious dimensions.
Mahler’s Third presents some of the biggest ideas and breadth of emotional expression of any symphony. Indeed, it builds on the ‘classical’ four movement symphony to become a sophisticated and demanding six movement work with a complex programmatic framework. By hearkening back with references to Brahms, Beethoven and Handel, it demonstrates music’s evolution while taking on an emotional response to the narrative of the evolution of our world.
Mahler takes the listener on a journey from the beginnings of our planet devoid of any life through the evolutionary stages that give rise to the emergence of humanity complete with its pain and suffering and finally to the highest levels of our present human existence in love.
Thus, it was with great anticipation that we arrived at Roy Thomson Hall last night ready to hear this seldom performed work. The last time it was performed in Toronto was in 2008, early in the tenure of Music Director Peter Oundjian.
In a pre-concert talk to hundreds who arrived an hour early, CBC Radio host Tom Allen challenged the audience to leave the day-to-day cares of our mundane existence at the door and let the emotion of the music reach the depths of our hearts for the ninety minute duration of this symphony.
Indeed, for this reviewer, that is exactly what happened. From the opening sounds of eight horns blasting out a distorted Brahmsian melody, the music grabbed hold of my heart-strings and never let go. The music expressed Mahler’s worst pain that may have come from a life in which he had to experience death first-hand in his family many times over. It took us to the heights of joy with corresponding moments of ecstasy.
The principals of each section took their turn with brilliant solos. Trombonist Gordon Wolfe depicted God in the ultimate trombone solo of the entire orchestral repertoire. Trumpet Principal Andrew McCandless was no less virtuosic in his off-stage post horn work. Other major solos came from oboist Sarah Jeffrey, horn Neil Deland and concert master, Jonathan Crow.
The entrance of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in the fourth movement, created a new sense of poignancy. The warmth and clarity of her words soared over the dark colours of the orchestral accompaniment. “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (“Oh man! Take heed!) reminded us all to beware of the intense pain of life while experiencing its joy.
The choral forces joined in the short fifth movement, labelled “What the Angels Tell Me”. With the children ringing out the peeling of church bells, the female choirs sang of “Heavenly joy…to all people for eternal bliss.” The singing both in the ‘a cappella’ and accompanied sections gave me shivers of delight.
Oundjian kept the audience under a musical spell for what seemed like a blissful eternity while the final sounds reverberated throughout the hall. The subsequent overwhelming shouts of bravo from a spontaneous standing ovation for our outstanding orchestra, soloists, and choirs was a tribute to the triumph of this remarkable evening. This was more than just a highlight of this new season; it was a moment to be remembered in the history of the TSO.
After a second performance of this symphony this evening, September 29th 2016, the TSO will change gears and present three concerts featuring the music of ABBA from October 2nd - 4th.
Mahler's Third brings out all the greatness of the TSO
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON September 29th 2016
Mahler's Third; Photo by Jag Photography